CDC director says decision to recommend masks again ‘weighed heavily’ on her

Walenski CDC US
r. Rochelle Walensky, now director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), removes her mask to speak as Joe Biden announces nominees and appointees to serve on his health and coronavirus response teams during a news conference at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., December 8, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

  • CDC Director Rochelle Walensky defended her agency’s decision to shift its guidance on masking.
  • “This was not news that I expected the American people to welcome,” she said on Fox News.
  • The CDC this week recommended that fully vaccinated people mask up in areas of high transmission.
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CDC Director Rochelle Walensky on Friday defended her agency’s decision this week to recommend that fully vaccinated people wear face masks in public months after the agency recommended the opposite.

“This was not news that I expected the American people to welcome. This weighed heavily on me to have to do this,” Walensky said during a Friday appearance on Fox News.

“I have no interest in continuing mask guidance, and the best way to stop a new variant from spreading is to have less virus out there and the best way to do that is to get people vaccinated and to mask up until they are,” she added.

The agency changed its guidance on wearing masks this week, recommending that individuals in areas of the US with a high spread of the disease wear masks regardless of their vaccination status. It also said that students and staff in K-12 schools should mask up this fall even if they’ve been vaccinated.

CDC officials linked the new guidance to the surge of cases propelled by the more contagious Delta variant of the disease, which is now the dominant COVID-19 strain in the US. There were more than 122,000 new COVID-19 cases reported in the US on Friday – a five-month high.

While fully vaccinated individuals can contract and spread the disease, the COVID-19 vaccines are effective in preventing serious illness and death against the variant. According to data from the CDC, 49.5% of people in the US are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, while 57.4% of people in the US are at least partially vaccinated.

The announcement this week was at odds with previous CDC guidance announced in May when the agency said fully vaccinated people could go without masks in nearly all indoor and outdoor settings. It still recommended that unvaccinated individuals continue to wear their masks in indoor settings.

That guidance came months after the agency in February recommended double masking to further boost protection from COVID-19 before vaccines were widely available.

Walensky previously said the change this week was a result of new information on the transmission of the highly contagious Delta variant.

“Information on the Delta variant from several states and other countries indicates that, on rare occasions, some vaccinated people infected with the Delta variant after vaccination may be contagious and spread the virus to others,” she said Tuesday.

“This new science is worrisome and unfortunately warrants an update to our recommendations,” she added.

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99.5% of COVID-19 deaths in the US are now in unvaccinated people, CDC head says

Rochelle Walenski CDC
Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • Nearly all US COVID-19 deaths in recent months were in unvaccinated people, Rochelle Walensky said.
  • People who were not vaccinated are “particularly at risk” of severe disease and death, she said.
  • Cases and hospitalization are up in counties with low vaccination rates, she said.
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Almost all recent COVID-19 deaths in the US were among unvaccinated people, according to preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

People who have not been vaccinated “remain susceptible, especially from the transmissible Delta variant, and are particularly at risk for severe illness and death,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, told a press briefing on Thursday.

“Preliminary data from several states over the last few months suggest that 99.5% of deaths from COVID-19 in the United States were in unvaccinated people,” Walensky said.

Walensky did not give a specific time frame for the data.

The estimate is in line with findings from a June analysis from the Associated Press, which found that only 0.8% of people who died from COVID-19 in the US in May were vaccinated.

Walensky’s comments come as the highly transmissible Delta variant is spreading across the country. Estimates published this week from the CDC show that the variant makes up more than half of the cases in the US.

“Although we expected the Delta variant to become the dominant strain in the US, this rapid rise is troubling,” Walensky said, adding that the variant was surging in pockets of the country with low vaccination rates.

Nationwide, hospitalization and deaths remain far lower than the numbers seen in January, due to a successful vaccination campaign, Walensky said.

But cases and hospitalization are rising in US counties where vaccination rates are low, she said.

Walensky said that there were 173 counties with case rates of above 100 cases per 100,000 people. That’s about three times higher than the national average of about 32 cases per 100,000, according to CDC data.

Nine of out ten of those 173 counties had vaccinated fewer than 40% of their residents, she said.

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden proposed changes to the US vaccination campaign, including suggesting a door-to-door vaccination efforts.

Walensky also said on Thursday that the authorized vaccines in the US can prevent severe disease, hospitalization, and death from the Delta variant.

Real-world data shows that the Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines can work against Delta to varying degrees, as Insider’s Dr. Catherine Schuster-Bruce reported.

Data from the UK also shows that two shots of Pfizer vaccine can give 88% protection against symptomatic COVID-19.

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CDC director says agency won’t change guidance on schools before end of the academic year because ‘most kids’ won’t be vaccinated

Rochelle Walenski CDC
Director of the Centers for Disease Control Rochelle Walensky speaking at a White House press briefing on March 1, 2021.

  • CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said the agency isn’t planning to update its guidance on schools.
  • She said the guidance will remain the same for the rest of the academic year because “most kids” won’t be vaccinated.
  • The CDC, however, is working to update its guidance for summer camps, she said.
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Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Sunday the agency’s guidance on school openings wouldn’t change before the end of the current academic year.

“We’ve got a lot of questions about schools,” Walensky told CNN’s Dana Bash during an appearance on “State of the Union.” “We will not be changing our guidance for the end of this school year. Most kids will not be vaccinated or fully vaccinated before the end of this year, and we’re going to work on updating our school guidance.”

In a major decision last week, the CDC dramatically shifted its guidance on wearing face masks in public settings for vaccinated Americans. People who are fully vaccinated no longer need to wear face masks in most indoor or outdoor settings, according to the new CDC guidelines.

The US Food and Drug Administration also last week issued an emergency use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children aged 12-15.

Current CDC guidance for schools involves the near-constant wearing of face masks for students and staff, except while eating and drinking. The CDC also recommends maintaining a physical distance between students in staff, keeping students and staff either three or six feet depending on the setting.

Bash also asked whether the CDC planned to update its guidance on summer camps now that children aged 12-15 are able to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Current CDC guidance recommends children and camp staff wear face masks at nearly at times, except when eating, drinking, swimming, or sleeping.

“So much evolved just in this week,” Walensky said, noting that the agency’s mask guidelines had been significantly relaxed over the past week and that children over 12 became eligible to get vaccinated.

“So yes, we do have to rapidly update our camp guidance and we’re working on that right now,” she said.

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New CDC guidelines will reportedly tell vaccinated Americans it’s safe to gather in small groups

Rochelle Walensky
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, CDC Director.

  • The CDC plans to release new guidelines this week for Americans who have been fully vaccinated.
  • The recommendations suggest that vaccinated people can host small, at-home gatherings with other fully vaccinated individuals, two senior White House officials told Politico.
  • But even fully vaccinated people will still need to wear masks and social distance in public.
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The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plans to release guidelines this week detailing how Americans can safely alter their behavior once they’re fully vaccinated.

The recommendations will advise that vaccinated people can host small, at-home gatherings with other fully vaccinated individuals, two senior White House officials involved in drafting the guidelines told Politico.

But even fully vaccinated people – those who have received two doses of either Pfizer or Moderna’s vaccine, or one shot of Johnson & Johnson’s – will still be asked to wear masks and social distance in public, the officials said. The full guidelines could be released as early as Thursday, Politico reported

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, hinted at the new rules during a White House press briefing on Monday.

“I use the example of a daughter coming in from out of town who is doubly vaccinated, and a husband and wife doubly vaccinated, and maybe a next-door neighbor who you know are doubly vaccinated,” Fauci said. “Small gatherings in the home of people, I think you can clearly feel that the risk – the relative risk – is so low that you would not have to wear a mask, that you could have a good social gathering within the home.”

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Dr. Anthony Fauci, during a White House Coronavirus Task Force meeting on November 19.

But CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky cautioned at the same briefing that even vaccinated Americans would have to remain vigilant.

“While we may have guidance at the individual level, as Dr. Fauci has suggested, I think we all need to keep our eye on the fact that we’re not out of the woods here yet,” Walensky said.

Average daily coronavirus cases have fallen roughly 65% since the start of January, but cases appear to have plateaued at around 70,000 per day over the last week.

If Americans “suddenly decided that because cases are going down, they felt more comfortable eating inside at a restaurant or socializing outside their pods, we could potentially erase the reductions that have been made over the past few weeks,” Dr. Kate Langwig, an infectious disease ecologist at Virginia Tech, told Insider in February.

For now, Walensky said, “the goal is not to sort of open up travel” just because vaccinations are scaling up. Instead, she said, the Biden administration has set its sights on making sure that “we are in a place to be out of this pandemic” within President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office – roughly by the end of April.

“At 70,000 cases per day, we’re not in that place right now,” Walensky said.

For that reason, experts still advise that fully vaccinated people limit their interactions with non-vaccinated people as much as possible.

“The setting in a home of a small group of people having dinner together, all of whom are vaccinated, is very different when you step out the door and go into a society that has 70,000 new infections per day,” Fauci said.

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